CONTENT WARNING: Eating disorders.
I previously recommended the TV adaptation of DIETLAND back in January which I described as a ‘woman-focused FIGHT CLUB’. While I last watched the show when it first aired in 2018, revisiting the pilot inspired me to check out the source material, Sarai Walker’s novel of the same name.
Upon reading it, I was struck at how close Marti Noxon’s adaptation hewed to the source material, while still fleshing Plum’s story out to be a bit more action-oriented to meet the requisite runtime of a TV series. However, the novel has an interiority and command of character that strikes closer to the reason why these pieces exist, which is:
Fuck capitalism, your body is fine, accept it and stop funneling money into the weight loss industry, but you will never, ever, be able to fit in without fighting for your right to do so. (And you still might hate yourself for doing so.)
To summarize: Plum Kettle is an ghostwriter giving private email advice to whomever mail her under the name of teen lifestyle magazine empress Kitty Montgomery. Plum is also fat, has always been fat, and wants to get surgery so she’ll be ‘Alicia’, her given name, the thin girl waiting inside of her. While working for Kitty, she’s roped into a group of ‘Jennifers’, an extremist organization that has no qualms about killing men and women who perpetuate a masculine agenda at the cost of women’s lives. Matters escalate.
While Noxon’s adaptation scrutinizes the changing of Plum from a meek, self-loathing woman into a revolutionary, Walker’s novel takes a different tact in exploring the dichotomy between who Plum feels as a fat person, and who she’d feel like as Alicia, a thin person. The Jennifers are backgrounded, a means to an existential end. It’s purely about Plum and the reader’s journey.
Look: I know I’m a middle-aged CIS dude. I am not the target audience for this work. However, I’ve struggled with my own weight issues. As a teen, I was definitely a calorie-counting anorexic, a behavioral note that DIETLAND hammers home. At my lowest scale reading, I was 130lbs, which for a 6’2” person was not healthy, but health be damned — I was a lithe goth boy!
Then, after working in diners and then meeting a woman who introduced me to the wonders of fine dining — as opposed to the same reliable carbs I’d routinely eat — I got fat. Then I found a very stupid, but very healthy and fun way to lose that weight: DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION, a videogame that knows a bunch of weight-obsessed folks play it, as it counts your calories with each track you dance to. It was way ahead of PELOTON with gamifying weight loss but, sadly, apparently is no longer profitable, and no longer exists due to the whims of its corporation.
Predictably, I gained the weight back, although under better circumstances: mostly beers in-between theater screenings and the like. I recall waking up one morning and realizing ‘oh, I’m just a fat person. This is who I am now.’ I felt a bit at peace with that reckoning. I stopped weighing myself and just started accepting my girth for what it was.
Then, the pandemic occurred, and in a fit of stress-induced anxiety, lost twenty pounds without even realizing it, which then provoked a flood of endorphins and, well, I thought: I lost this much through inaction, so let’s try action! And now I’ve lost at least fifty pounds, I can wear pants and shirts I haven’t worn in over a decade — although that’s probably a fashion crime — but I still feel like garbage. My wife calls it self-control, but I know the real term for it, and I haven’t felt the same sort of acceptance that I felt when I told myself that I was fat.
What DIETLAND instills is that the fat, insecure person will always live in you. It becomes part of your identity. You will always see them, even if others don’t. It’s a resignation that, in the novel, leads to a personal and political revolution. In real life, that doesn’t really happen.
I’d like to say I ‘recovered’, but as anyone who has struggled with weight knows: there’s no recovery; not really. There are highs and lows, at least until a final acceptance, which is the ultimate point of DIETLAND, but at the end of the day, DIETLAND is still a fictional work. Living with that is far harder than turning the last page.
I don’t feel that most men think about their looks or weight, or at least more than they have to which — by American standards — is very little if they’re heteronormative. I’m thankful to have a network of friends I can confide to about this, but I fear many don’t, which is exactly why I’m writing this. I can say: both the series and the book have helped me process a number of weight-related issues, and if you suffer from that, maybe these works will speak to you, too.